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Can North Penn High’s student reporters fill a news gap in Montgomery County?

North Penn High School's student-run TV station, NPTV, has continued to air shows regularly despite the school's closure. The channel also has become a bastion of reportage in a region that needs it.

Sophia Hughes, a senior at North Penn, produces, directs, and writes for NPTV.
Sophia Hughes, a senior at North Penn, produces, directs, and writes for NPTV.Read moreCourtesy of Bob Gillmer

Eight and a half minutes into the April 6 episode of “North Penn Right Now,” produced and staffed by students at North Penn High School on its broadcast network, NPTV, came the centerpiece of any news show: the big “get.”

Senior Erik Jesberger — clad in a blue blazer, crisp white shirt, and orange-and-periwinkle tie, his hair slick and parted — interviewed North Penn schools superintendent Curtis Dietrich about the district’s implementation of distance learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

That Jesberger was conducting the interview digitally from his bedroom, with a baseball-shaped Phillies poster on the wall behind him, did not seem to faze him.

“What can you say to students such as myself?” Jesberger asked Dietrich. “My classroom is my bed, and also my cafeteria is my kitchen. What can you say to students at these times?”

“Well,” Dietrich said, “we’re doing our best to present the lessons in a way you can understand, comprehend, and learn. So we ask that you continue to have patience with us.”

The exchange — broadcast on NPTV’s YouTube and Facebook Live feeds and on the station’s cable channel, carried on Comcast and Verizon — was more than an administrator’s attempt to get a message out to parents or a courtesy to an ambitious teenager, although, as Jesberger said, “It was cool to have him talk to me and [talk about] what’s going on in these crazy times.”

The truth is, NPTV is becoming an unexpectedly important news source in Montgomery County, whose traditional media landscape is changing. The North Penn Reporter, the region’s daily newspaper, has seen its circulation shrink over time, the result of an industrywide struggle of print media to keep its presses running. Earlier this month, in fact, The Inquirer learned that MediaNewsGroup, which owns The Reporter and several other newspapers in the Philadelphia suburbs, was looking to cut staff, according to internal memos.

And WNPV 1440 AM, the Lansdale-based radio station that has covered the region since 1960, is scheduled to go off the air on April 30 because of a steep decline in advertising revenue.

“Hearing the news of that really does stink,” said Jesberger, who had interned at WNPV as a sophomore. “But what that puts on us is not only more responsibility but an opportunity to shed light on the things going on in our community.”

As for the sprawling Montgomery County school district, its news operation is running lean with the times: With the exception of one administrator and a couple of faculty members, a collection of students — most of them seniors — have been running the NPTV operation remotely from their homes.

Other area high schools, such as Spring-Ford, have student-run shows that can be and have been broadcast to their respective communities. But few, if any, have the reach and tradition of NPTV, which was created in 1993 and customarily has covered and televised North Penn’s sporting events, assemblies, and concerts.

The channel’s weekly Friday show, “Mornings,” is usually broadcast to the entire student body — the school’s enrollment is roughly 3,200 — and a recent football game commanded an audience of 10,000 viewers.

“You don’t realize the reach you have,” said senior Brandi Marlin, who delivered color commentary on that football broadcast. “When you get recognized in public, that’s the best thing.”

Overseen since its inception by Bob Gillmer, the district’s coordinator of communication media, NPTV can’t be called a purely journalistic enterprise. Gillmer admitted that there isn’t a lot of room for opinion on the two shows that students produce on NPTV: “Mornings” and “North Penn Right Now,” which airs the last Tuesday of every month. But “as long as we have researched our story and we do not attack students or an individual,” he said, “we fairly cover the stories that are specific to North Penn High School.”

There have been fewer of those stories available to do, of course, since March 13, when Gov. Tom Wolf announced that all schools in the state would be closed. Even without access to their studio and equipment at the school, Gillmer and the students relied on the same software with which they were already familiar — primarily Google applications such as Classroom, Hangout, and Drive — to meet, compile stories and assignments, and produce the programs. The students crowdsourced content and material from their peers for future segments, such as “Question of the Week” and “On the Bright Side." At his home, Gillmer has a tricaster that allows him to compile the voice-overs and video packages and stream the shows.

One week later, on March 20, the “Mornings” staff delivered a 19-minute episode that included an explanation of coronavirus symptoms and prevention and reports on how North Penn’s students were passing their time away from school.

On April 3, Marlin aired an interview she had conducted the previous day with Patrick Brett, the head of the school’s college and career center. Marlin’s report and interview updated students on changes to standardized-testing schedules and college-application processes.

“We feel like it’s a big part of our school,” said senior Sophia Hughes, who produces, directs, and writes stories and rundowns for NPTV.

It will likely have a greater impact on the area in the weeks and months to come, because of circumstances within the modern media landscape. If nothing else, Jesberger and his fellow NPTV staffers can take heart that, because of the virus, the big names of TV news — ABC, NBC, CBS, all the 24-hour cable channels — have to confront just as many restrictions and limitations. Their anchors are doing stand-ups (or sit-downs) from their homes, too.

“We might not be as well-known as those national newscasts,” Hughes said, “but they’re in the same boat.”